Another Sunday Evening
A slender young woman, sitting with her back straight like a spring sapling, right in front of me. When Michael asked for questions, after a pause, she raised her hand halfway -- more like a tentative wave hello than like a student raising her hand. Michael was looking down, rummaging under his desk, or whatever you call the thing the lama sits behind; but he said "Yeah. Dechen."
The question came out in fragments. There were the people you knew who weren't in the sangha, you know, that you hung out with, and spent time with, but they didn't know what you were doing... and it seemed like the sangha could be... she had something to ask of us... she couldn't always, well, challenge herself, I mean, couldn't see her own stuff, sometimes... when she contemplated the four thoughts, and realized this time was so precious...
There was a catch in her throat, and I became aware, although sitting behind her, that she was near tears. She thought that we could do more than... you know, sometimes it was like, after puja it was all small talk, and, it seemed like... we could be so much more. So that, you know, if people could challenge her...
Michael sat a little while, looking down, perfectly still. There are times when you can almost see the empathy and tenderness welling up in him. The more moving in that he is not at all a touchy-feely kind of guy. He's the sort of man who generally ends up being a engineer, or a technician -- practical, skeptical, empirical.
He began his answer gently and obliquely, as he often does. With a few remarks about how in this tradition it's generally held that you should work with your own stuff. It's very hard to know what other people are working with.
I wish I could reproduce the whole flow of the give and take between him and Dechen. He moved on to talking about intimacy, the sense of connection and closeness between people, and how it never seems quite enough. "I know I've had that feeling all my life," he said quietly. "I don't think anything began to address it until I began taking the Bodhisattva vow seriously. Living for others rather than for myself. And it wasn't that the relationships changed, particularly. But that I realized that connection didn't really have to be reciprocal. The thing that was changing was in me. In a way, I think the whole path is about just that, about making connection possible."
I'm not quoting there -- those quotation marks are lies -- I'm paraphrasing, and not very well, maybe. It surprised me, because I think of Michael as an emissary of the Vajra Buddha family -- the cold blue steel intellect, incisive and analytical, the truth at any cost -- and this was from the Lotus Buddha family, the warm red heart, with a vengeance. But Michael always surprises me. (Very few people can keep surprising me, over the years. I married one of them.)
At the end of the evening he spent nearly an hour talking with Martha about how to practice with the general anaesthesia -- not one of the classical bardos (= "in-between-times," e.g. death or sleep), and how to deal with hospital people and routines. So we got out of there sometime after 9:30. Michael had been teaching since 9:00 A.M.